Bergman says the knight and squire in the film manifest two attitudes to faith that wrestled within him at the time of making – a remnant of naïve piety and his adult cold rationality. He allows these two to lay out their stalls without conflict, they mostly stay out of each others way. The squire's (very Shakespearian) skepticism is immediate and winning, although the horrors of the medieval world make Gunnar Björnstrand rather bitter: he's more Jaques than Touchstone. Max Von Sydow gives a very intense performance, eyes always trying to pierce the inner significance of things. God's silence is not so much a source of desolation as of frustration. WHY doesn't he answer? And more importantly, if he doesn't exist WHY are we constantly plagued with the idea of his perfection? At the end, his squire says he could have offered his master medicine that would have quenched this thirst. We can live content without the dissatisfaction of forever being separated from the divine, although the knight does not have the opportunity to learn how to do this. Death (or the plague) claims them all.
Well, almost all. The existential musings of the knight and squire is contrasted with what Bergman describes as the holy within humanity, portrayed by a "holy family" of itinerant actors. The father even expresses the hope of his young son being able to work miracles, although only for entertainment purposes. Their act aims to distract and amuse an audience in a village, but their efforts are quashed when a procession of self-flagellating divines interrupt proceedings and whip up the crowd with visions of impending apocalypse. Bergman says the mural-painter in the church is a stand-in for his own attitude to art, in that you make what you are paid for. But the character also talks about how the image of death is far more potent and captivating that that of a bawd. In the middle of the film, the "holy family"supply an alternative sacrament to the company – wild strawberries and milk – much sweeter than the Christian fare. It offers a moment of peace for the knight, but he is drawn back to his game with Death. Distraction for him is momentary, the struggle for answers continues unabated.